CLEVER HANS: The True Story Behind The True Story
There are many clever picture books being released, but I don’t want you to miss the cleverest:
This non-fiction story looks at a horse who made scientific history. It’s a fun ride for all ages (just look at the cute illustration of Hans by Mike Lowery)!
Like OLD ROCK a few weeks ago, I learned about CLEVER HANS via SCBWI’s free webinars, and I felt compelled to reach out to author Kerri Kokias about this equine wunderkind.
Kerri, how did you first learn about Clever Hans?
I learned about Clever Hans in an Introduction to Psychology class I took in college.
Oh wow, back in college! So you held onto the idea for a long time before writing it. What was the spark that made you say—hmm, maybe this is a picture book?
When I began writing for children and brainstorming ideas for writing a narrative non-fiction picture book, Hans immediately came to mind. Since Hans had stayed on my mind for the twenty-some years since college, I knew there was a strong hook to his story. And the idea of a horse that could count, tell-time, solve math problems, read, spell, and more has obvious kid appeal. I also knew how Hans’ story ended and that he had a lasting scientific impact. It felt almost like the story could write itself! Although, of course, it’s never that easy.
It never is!
Did the story go through several rewrites? Did you have to change tack (pun intended) anywhere in the process?
Ha! Good joke, Tara. No, it’s that the research proved to be more involved than I originally anticipated.
Before I spent a lot of time digging up sources, I did a quick survey of what was more widely known about Hans in popular culture. It didn’t take long for me to notice the discrepancies that I’d have to sort out. I ordered a copy of the original research report on Clever Hans, which was written in 1911 and translated from German. I spent a lot of time reading, rereading, and generally slogging through those 275 pages. The language used in that time period (and in research reports in general) can be long-winded and dry, and the fact that the text was translated, so I wasn’t even reading what was originally written, meant I needed to slow down to make sense of everything.
Luckily, my education and professional background in social science research had acclimated me to parsing through research reports, which helped. I also tracked down as many original newspaper reports as I could find, which was super fun—especially when they included old photographs!
Mike Lowery incorporated wonderful details of the time period including the style of dress and architecture.
Mike, can you tell us about your preparation for CLEVER HANS?
I was especially excited about this book because it takes a look at Germany in the early 1900s. My wife is from Germany so for the past decade, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to go and explore the country when we visit our family and friends there. I did a LOT of research into what Berlin looked like around that time and even worked in a few real hotels, cafes, restaurants, and even a newspaper stand. The drawings in the book are simple, but I wanted to also get the clothing just right. Luckily my wife was able to help by finding books about clothing from that period, too.
It looks very authentic, Mike!
Kerri, do you have any funny behind-the-scenes story about “the making of” this book?
It was always a happy surprise to see Mike’s illustrations through his process. When I was writing the book I kept wondering how an illustrator would handle the story since the setting doesn’t change much and the characters are more or less limited to Hans and a variety of old, white men. But oh my gosh, Mike added so much personality and humor in the illustrations! I’ve laughed out loud at several discoveries and continue to notice new details with each reading.
OK, you have to give me an example of a LOL moment!
Of course! Several examples come to mind…
There’s a scene where Hans is tired of answering questions and he has the best grumpy expression I can possibly imagine on a horse.
There’s a scene where a confused chicken is watching Hans be questioned…
…and another where there is a bird on a scientist’s head and a snake peeking out of his pocket.
At one point scientists wondered if Hans could be psychic and Mike drew a hilarious spread of his interpretation of Hans as a psychic mind reader.
And I think my all-time-favorite is of when a scientist tried to imitate Hans answering a question by getting on his hands and knees and tapping out his answer like Hans did.
Those are all hilarious, especially grumpy Hans. I did feel his frustration with being constantly questioned and trotted out for entertainment. His contribution to science and scientific study proved to be crucial, though, and I’m glad kids today can learn about him through this fascinating and fun book!
Congratulations to you and Mike. I’m giving CLEVER HANS four hoofs up!
CLEVER HANS is available now from Putnam/PRH!
Kerri is also giving away a copy, so just comment once below to enter.
A random winner will be selected in two weeks.
Source: Writing Competition